Entomophagy is the civilized term for bug-eating, and if the United Nations has its way, the practice will infest the world like termites in a lumberyard.
In the spring, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report extolling the virtues of insects as a sustainable solution to expanding the food supply and introducing healthy alternatives to proteins we now consume.
The “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security” report estimates the Earth is populated by more than 1,900 edible insect species, hundreds of which are currently consumed by about 2 billion people in many countries.
“Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish,” according to the report.
Bugs are regularly prepared cooked and raw around the globe, according to the report, and it's only Western culture that rejects the practice as a whole.
The report says many insects are packed with protein, fiber, good fats and vital minerals — as much or more than many other food sources.
For example, mealworms are aptly named. The larval form of a specific breed of darkling beetle that lives in temperate regions worldwide, they provide protein, vitamins and minerals similar to those found in fish and meat. Small grasshoppers offer as much protein as lean ground beef but at a fraction of the cost of fat per gram. And it doesn't get anymore grass-fed than a grasshopper.
“Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly,” the report said, adding they leave a “low environmental footprint.”
The report indicates how urgent it is that insects as food and feed emerge in the 21st century due to the rising cost of animal protein, environmental concerns, population growth and the increasing demand for protein among the middle classes.
I fear it'll take another generation or two until we're farming bugs for food in Oklahoma.
“While the findings are interesting, I don't view it as something we would seek funding from the Legislature to study further at this time,” said Jeanetta Cooper, who not only serves the state Department of Agriculture's Plant Industry and Consumer Services but also claims to have eaten many kinds of bugs.
“Especially since most departments of agriculture were established to eradicate certain insects,” she said.
If the corn industry is as nefarious as it is often portrayed in films like “King Corn” and “Food Inc.,” bugs have a lot to worry about. That's because the U.N. study says bugs offer alternative solutions to conventional livestock and feed sources that “urgently need to be found.”
The report states in 2011, combined world feed production was estimated at 870 million tons, with revenue from global commercial feed manufacturing generating approximately $350 billion globally.
The study estimates production will have to increase by 70 percent to sustain feeding the world in 2050, with poultry, pork and beef outputs expected to double.
Insects are “extremely efficient” in converting feed into edible meat, the study said. On average, they can convert 4.4 pounds of feed into 2.2 pounds of insect mass. In comparison, cattle require 17.6 pounds of feed to produce 2.2 pounds of meat.
Chicken and fish already nosh on bugs, and larvae could be produced and processed for other types of feed. There is no mention of how fish and poultry that fed on insects tasted to humans, but it does state it would decrease costs of the proteins. The amount of protein pumped full of fillers that we consume at fast-food establishments daily is proof we'll skimp on flavor to save a few dollars.
Aren't bugs are gross?
It's not too difficult to see us feeding bugs to the animals we consume, but feeding on bugs ourselves will be a tougher sell.
Throughout its 200 pages, the report details the benefits of bug-eating, including good health, environmental advantages and reduced costs across the food industry. Some insects are rich in copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc and are a source of fiber.
University biologists have analyzed the nutritional value of edible insects, and some of them, such as certain beetles, ants, crickets and grasshoppers, come close to lean red meat or broiled fish in terms of protein per gram.
But the U.N. wouldn't need 200 pages of waxing poetic about the subject if there wasn't a major roadblock. Starvation aside, most folks in these parts don't eat bugs unless their windshield is in a state of gross disrepair.
The U.N.'s plan for overcoming “ick” factor is advertising. The report outlines an enormous propaganda campaign that would include “tailored media communication strategies and educational programs that address the disgust factor.”
So, be prepared to “like” entomogaphy on Facebook and brace yourself for the #Iheartbugeating hashtag on Twitter.
A cautionary tale
Entomophy and I have a broken relationship. My one and only flirtation with it happened once upon an autumn night in 1990. I stumbled into the garage apartment I had just moved into in a historic Oklahoma City neighborhood. The refurbished unit was formerly a detached garage for a home built in the 1930s. The place was new to me and my landlords, who'd moved into the main house only weeks before.
Tired and ready to shut down for the evening, I lounged in my bed/couch in the faint glow of a small television. As my eyelids grew heavier, something on the kitchen wall derailed my date with dreamtime. It was too big to be a bug, but I couldn't recall a stain or wall sconce in that location. Then it moved.
I made the three-step trip from bed to the kitchen and flipped on the light.
To my horror, this was indeed a bug — a horrifyingly large one. And the creature crawling up the wall into my nightmares was the one living being I fear more than my mother's switch: the cockroach.
And he had friends.
Once the light switched, the cockroaches mobilized across the black-and-white tiled kitchen floor, up the wall, and under the fridge and stove. I stood frozen with neither insecticide nor a flyswatter at my disposal. I recalled a makeshift weapon my mother had used on me once when I had cracked wise about how powerless she was to rule me and my newfound 17-year-oldness, the heel of a loafer.
Loafer in hand, roach carnage and battle cries ensued. The hungry water bugs skittered toward nearby crevices to avoid a malicious and swift demise beneath the crush and fury of a Bass penny loafer.
It was all over in a few minutes. My adrenaline, previously fueled by the carnage, still pumped fiercely. I stepped out of the kitchen and took one last look back. I had no clever one-liners. This wasn't “Rambo,” it was pure Sam Peckinpaugh.
Then one last roach scampered up the narrow facing of a dividing wall and came to an abrupt halt just below eye level.
My ebbing adrenaline caught flame, and I charged the last vestige of my horror with a bloodcurdling shriek and my fiercest loafer-strike yet. The heel of the loafer caught the cockroach, bursting it into oblivion. The innards flew directly into the path of my ongoing final war-cry, over my tongue and landing at the back of my throat. The cockroach brains found an isolated spot in my throat, just beyond the reach of gag reflex.
I couldn't extricate the carnage, so I did the only thing biology would allow. I swallowed. There was no vomiting, but plenty of retching before I spent the night replaying the moment cockroach chum hit the back of my throat each time I shut my eyes.
Long story short, no bugs for me, thanks.
Future of bug eating
Just because I won't be an early-adopter to the coming entomophagy craze doesn't mean there isn't a rationale for eating bugs, a plausible way to farm them, and a legitimate need to expand the food supply. But rational, plausible and legitimate are only words attached to ideas. When it comes to behavior those words are like fireflies, which would really make for some interesting dining, pretty to look at but gone before we know it.
Starvation is no joke and neither is the state of our finite natural resources. If bugs will promote longer human existence and improve the quality of life, then by all means lay the groundwork for it.
If my legacy is to be the subject of ancestral ridicule for never enjoying the simple majesty of mealworm hummus, then I will happily bear the burden.
Bugs in food
Here are a couple of recipes for early-adopters.
Garlic Butter Fried Insects
¼ cup butter
6 crushed garlic cloves
1 cup mealworms
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup grasshoppers
Recipes provided by: Jeannetta Cooper, state Department of Agriculture.